Spanish language

The Spanish language (Castellano or Español) is a Romance language, the third or fourth most spoken language on the planet, spoken by about 352 million persons in 1999 in the seven continents, especially in The Americas (417,000,000 including second language users). The Spanish name of the language is a political issue. Many Spaniards speaking Spanish call their language español. Most Spaniards speaking other languages call Spanish castellano (Castilian). In Spanish schools, the official name of the language tends to be castellano rather than español, mainly because there are many regions where there are two mother tongue signatures - castellano and the regional language (Catalan, Basque or Galician), which are, in a sense, also "Spanish" languages (they are separate languages, not dialects). On the other hand, in some Latin American countries people prefer the word castellano because español is heard more as a nationality than the name of a language. Speakers of English call the language Spanish, whereas to them, Castilian is the dialect spoken in the spanish region of Castile. Therefore, we will use Spanish in this article.

Total speakers: 352 million
 Romance language
Language codes
ISO 639-1: es
ISO 639-2: spa

Table of contents
1 History
2 Classification
3 Geographic distribution
4 Grammar
5 Sounds
6 Vocabulary
7 Writing system
8 Examples of Spanish
9 See also
10 External links


The Spanish language was developed from vulgar Latin, with influence from Basque and Arabic, in the Iberian Peninsula (see Iberian Romance languages). Typical features of Spanish diachronical phonology include lenition (Latin vita, Spanish vida), palatalization (Latin annum, Spanish año) and diphthongation of breve E/O from vulgar Latin (Latin terra, Spanish tierra; Latin novus, Spanish nuevo); similar phenomena can be found in most Romance languages as well.

By the 16th century the consonantal system of Castilian Spanish underwent the following important changes that differentiated it from some neighbouring Romance languages, such as Portuguese and Catalan):

  • The initial /f/, that had evolved into a vacillating /h/, was lost in most words (although this etymological h- has been preserved in spelling)
  • The voiced labiodental fricative /v/ (that was written 'u' or 'v') merged with the bilabial oclusive /b/ (written 'b'). Contemporary Spanish written 'b,v' do not correspond to different phonemes.
  • The voiced alveolar fricative /z/ (that was written 's' between vowels) merged with the voiceless /s/ (that was written 's', or 'ss' between vowels), now written 's' everywhere.
  • Voiced alveolar affricate /dz/ (that was written 'z') merged with the voiceless /ts/ (that was written 'ç,ce,ci'), and then /ts/ evolved into the interdental /T/, now written 'z,ce,ci'. But in Andalucia, the Canary Islands and the Americas these sounds merged with /s/ as well. Notice that the 'ç' or 'cedilla' was in its origin a Spanish letter.
  • The voiced postalveolar fricative /Z/ (that was written 'j,ge,gi') merged with the voiceless /S/ (that was written 'x', as in 'Quixote'), and then /S/ evolved by the 17th century into the modern velar sound /x/, now written 'j,ge,gi'.

The consonantal system of Medieval Spanish has been better preserved in Judaeo-Spanish, the language spoken by the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

The language was brought to the Americas and Philippines, by the Spanish colonization since 16th century. It was used there by the Creole and Mestizo descendants of the Spaniards. The Catholic church preached the Amerindians in local languages like Quechua, Nahuatl or Guarani rather than Spanish, to protect them from the "sinful" influence of the colonizers. After the independence processes, the new ruling elites extended Spanish to the whole population to strengthen the national unity.

In the 20th century, English was declared the official language in Philippines after the Philippine-American War, but Spanish was introduced in Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara.


Spanish is a member of the Romance branch of Indo-European.

Geographic distribution

Spanish is one of the official languages of the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Also, Spanish is an official language (and the most important language) in 20 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela .

Spanish is also spoken in Andorra, Belize, Canada, Gibraltar, Israel, Morocco, Netherlands Antilles, Philippines, United States of America, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey and Western Sahara.

There are important variations in dialect among the various regions of Spain and Spanish America. In Spain the North Castilian dialect pronunciation is commonly taken as the national standard (although the characteristic weak pronouns usage or laismo of this dialect is deprecated).

In the Americas, the first Spaniards to settle brought some of their regionalisms with them. Today you can find distinct accents in different nations of Spanish speaking America. Typical of Latin America is seseo. The European Castilian phoneme /T/ (interdental voiceless fricative, SAMPA phonetic scheme used) (as in ciento, caza) does not exist in American Castilian, it fell together with /s/ (as in siento, casa).

Traditionally Spanish had a phoneme /L/, a palatal lateral, written ll. It was lost in most of the Americas (with the exception of bilingual areas of Quechua and other indigenous languages that have this sound in their inventories), but now it is also being lost in Spain (also with the exception of bilingual areas of Catalan and other languages that have preserved this sound in their inventories). Now this phoneme is merged with /j\\/ in most of the Spanish speaking areas. This phenomenon is called yeismo. In Argentina, /j\\/ and /L/ are generally pronounced as /Z/ (palatal voiced fricative) as in French 'jour'. This phenomenon is called žeismo.

The different dialects and accentss do not severly block cross-understanding among the educated. The basilects have diverged more. As an example, early sound films, were dubbed for one version for the whole Spanish market. (Disney Pictures used educated Puerto-Rican speakers). Currently, non-Spanish (usually Hollywood) productions are dubbed separately into each of the major accents, but productions from another Spanish-language country are never dubbed. The popularity of telenovelas and Latin American music familiarize the speakers with other varieties of Spanish.

Many people think that Spanish is regulated by the RAE (Real Academia Española). Actually, languages cannot be regulated, but RAE, in association with twenty-one other national language academies, exercises a conservative influence through its publication of dictionaries and widely respected grammar guides and style guides.


The verb

Spanish verbs are conjugated in two moodss: indicative and subjunctive. The verbs have a infinitive form, a progressive form, and an participle form.

The indicative mode has five simple tenses and five compound tenses. The five simple tenses are:

  • presente (present simple)
  • pretérito (simple past)
  • imperfecto/copretérito (imperfect),
  • futuro (future), and
  • pospretérito/condicional (conditional)

The compound tenses are formed by conjugating the verbs "estar" and "haber" (roughly equivalent to "to be" and "to have", in English) in the simple tenses mentioned above together with the participle form of the verb. For example,

  1. yo estaba hablando (present participle)
  2. yo he hablado (past participle)

The compound tenses use aspect to express (example 1) actions that exist for a limited period of time, e.g. past habits, and (example 2) actions that started in the past but still have relevance to the now.

The subjunctive mood is more widely and intentionally used in Spanish compared to other languages like English. Its three tenses are:

  • presente subjuntivo (present)
  • subjuntivo pasado/imperfecto (imperfect), and the largely unused
  • futuro (future).

The subjunctive also uses perfective aspect to form compound tenses. The subjective is used to express the speaker's opinion or judgement, such as, doubts, possibilities, emotions, and events which may or may not occur. The future tense is found mostly in old literature or legalese and is even misused in conversations by confusing it with the past tense (often due to the similarity of its charataristic suffix, "-ere", as opposed to one of the suffixes of the past tense, "-era"). Most Spanish speakers go on without ever knowing or realizing the existence of this tense...

Some linguists have theorized that Spanish verbs, when describing motion, emphasize the direction of motion. For example, subir means "to go up", bajar means "to go down". This contrasts with English verbs which are more likely to show the method of motion ("Sliding" vs. "tumbling").

The noun


All Spanish nouns have one of two genders: masculine or inclusive and feminine or exclusive. Most adjectives, all pronouns, and all articles indicate the gender of the noun they reference.

Nouns can be grouped in the following categories:

  1. Applied to persons and animals whose sex is known
    1. Declinable nouns: add "a" or replace final vowel by "a" to the masculine (or inclusive) to form the feminine (or exclusive). Examples: el profesor/la profesora, el niño/la niña, el perro/la perra.
    2. Invariant nouns (in Spanish "sustantivos de género común"): el artista/la artista, el testigo/la testigo.
    3. Nouns with gramatical gender, but that apply to both sexes: el personaje, la visita.
  2. Applied to animals. In addition to declinable nouns we have epicene nouns: gender is fixed and sex is indicated by "macho" (male) or "hembra" (female). Examples: la jirafa macho, la jirafa hembra, el rinoceronte macho, el rinoceronte hembra.
  3. Applied to things
    1. Masculine or inclusive: el pan.
    2. Feminine or exclusive: la leche.
    3. Vacillant (called "sustantivos ambiguos" in Spanish). El azúcar/la azúcar, el esperma/la esperma.
    4. In some cases the same word can take two genders. In that case it is better to say that we have two words. El capital = funds, la capital = capital city.


There are two grammatical numbers: singular and plural. Plural is indicated adding "s" or "es".

  • The inclusive (or masculine) gender includes both sexes: los niños = the children
  • The feminine gender is exclusive: las niñas = the girls
In plural, masculine sex is indicated with phrases such as los niños varones, los niños hombres (note that "hombre" is "male person", not "man").

The adjective

The feminine (or exclusive) gender is formed in a different way that the noun is. Most adjectives ending in a consonant remain unchanged: hombre superior, mujer superior (compare with el superior/la superiora). This is also true for adjectives ending in "e": hombre verde, mujer verde (compare with el presidente, la presidenta).


Since Spanish has many allophones it is important here to differentiate between phonemes (written here /between slashes/) and allophones [between brackets].

(SAMPA phonetic scheme used)



/p/ bilabial, voiceless Spelled "p" (pipa)  
/b/ bilabial, voiced Spelled "b" (burro) or "v" (vaca) Positional allophones: [b] appears initially or after nasals (bombo, burro, envidia), [B] elsewhere (nube, la bodega) (*).
/t/ dental, voiceless Spelled "t" (tomate)  
/d/ dental, voiced Spelled "d" (dedo) Positional allophones: [d] appears initially or after nasals (donde), [D] elsewhere (nido, la deuda) (*). In Spain it's ommited in the endings -ado, -ada, -ados and -adas ("manadas" = /ma"na:s/), as is in Latin America in final position: "usted" = [us"te] or [us"teD].
/k/ velar, voiceless Spelled "c" (casa), "qu" (queso), "k" (kiosko)  
/g/ velar, voiced Spelled "g" (gato), "gu" (guerra). Positional allophones: [g] appears initially or after nasals (ganga), [G] elsewhere (lago, la garganta) (*).
/s/ voiceless. In Spain it is apico-alveolar, in Latin America it is alveolar or dental [s]. See also /T/ below Spelled "s" (sapo) Positional allophones: in many places it is [h] in final position (niños), or before another consonant (fósforo). In the Colombian Caribe produces gemination before /k/ or /f/ consonants (pescado = /pe"k:aDo/ or /pe"k:ao/, fósforo = /"fof:oro/). In Spain it also has a [z] allophone before voiced consonants (desde).
/T/ voiceless, dental. Spelled "z" (zorro) or "c" (cielo) This phoneme is heard only in parts of Spain, where it has the allophone /D/ before voiced consonants (juzgado = /xuD"gao/ or /xuD"gaDo/ - not the same sound as the /d/ allophone) (*). Elsewhere it merges with /s/.
/f/ voiceless, labiodental Spelled "f" (faro)  
/x/ voiceless, velar. In parts of Latin America it is [h]. Spelled "j" (jarro), "g" (general).  
/j\\/ voiced, palatal. In Argentina, Uruguay and Chile it has a [Z] or [dZ] sound. Spelled "y" (yo, yerro, yerba); See also /L/ below Positional allophones: after /n/ it is affricate
/tS/ is pronounced as a plosive in European Spanish, something like [t_j]. In South American Spanish, on the other hand, there are mainly [tS] or [S] pronunciations - like French /S/ that has also developed from /tS/. Spelled "ch" (chino). In words of English origin it may be spelled "sh": show = [tSow] Positional allophones: In final position it may be [S]. sándwich = ["sandwiS]
/m/ bilabial Spelled "m" (mano) It occurs only before vowels. Before consonants the [m] sound is part of the /n/ archphoneme

álbum = ["albun]; réquiem = ["rEkjen]

/n/ its principal sound is alveolar Spelled "n" (noche) Positional allophones: [N] before /k/ (blanco, un queso), /g/ (angustia, un gato), /x/ (enjambre, un jarro) or semiconsonant /w/ (enhuesar, un huevo, but not nuevo); [F] before /f/ (enfermo, un faro); [m] before /m/ (inmerecido, un mono), /p/ (only on separate words, like in "un perro"), /b/ ("v", like in "envolver", or "b" on separate words, like in "un burro"); [J] before /j\\/ (cónyuge, un yeso), /L/ (conllevar, un llavero).
/n^/ palatal Spelled "ñ" (niño), the most characteristic grapheme of Spanish language. In parts of Latin America it is pronounced like /n_j/ or /nj/ ("mañana" = /ma"njana/ or /ma"n_jana/). It occurs only before vowels. Before consonants it is part of the /n/ archphoneme.
/l/ Spelled "l" (largo).  
/L/ Palatal Spelled "ll" (lluvia). This phoneme is almost extinct and /j\\/, /Z/ and /dZ/ have taken its place. /L/ survives in areas of bilingualism with Catalan, Quechua, or other languages that have preserved this phoneme in their inventories (like some places of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, etc). It also survives in isolated places such as Chiloé, in Chile.
/4/ (/r/) Simple alveolar flap. Spelled "r" (loro). Positional allophones: A trill ([r:]) in initial posotion (ratón = [r:a"ton]), after /n/ (enredo = [en"r:eDo]), /l/ (alrededor = [alr:eDe"Dor]), or /s/ (israelita = [isr:ae"lita]). In Chile in colloquial speech it produces gemination before /t/ (carta = ['kat:a]), /n/ (carne = ['kan:e]) and /l/ (perla = ['pel:a]). In the Colombian Caribe, it produces gemination before almost every consonant (barco = /'bak:o/, árbol = /'ab:ol/, arde = /'ad:e/, ...), and is replaced by /?/ in final position (saber = /sa'Be?/). In Cuba and Puerto Rico it's replaced by /l/ (puerco = /'pwelko/).
/r:/ (/rr/) Multiple alveolar trill Spelled "rr" (cerro) In some parts of Latin America, mainly in Ecuador, it is pronounced like /Z/ ("arriba" = /a'ZiBa/). It occurs only between vowels, in all other positions it is part of the /4/ archphoneme.
/w/ Spelled "gu" (guardia), "gü" (averigüe), "w" (whisky), "hu" (huevo). Allophones: in many places /w/ = [Gw] or [gw]. "averiguo" = /aberiwo/ = [aBeriwo] or [aBeriGwo]; "whiski" or "güisqui" = /wiski/ = [wiski] or [gwiski]; "agua" = /"awa/ or /"aGwa/; but "argüir" = /arGu"ir/, not /ar"Gwir/ (why?).

Since there is no phonemic difference between [gw], [Gw] and [w] it's arbitrary to considerer /w/ a separate phoneme. The alternative is saying that g may be mute before /w/.

/j/ Spelled "y" (muy), "i" (pieza, hierba, hierro) It can be considered an allophone of /i/; "mi amigo" = [mja"miGo], "pierna" = ["pjerna]
/w/ Spelled "u" (cuatro, guardia), "ü" (agüero). This is not the same sound as semiconsonant /w/ It can be considered an allophone of /u/: "tu amigo" = [twa"miGo], "cuanto" = /"kwanto/
/a/ Spelled "a", "á" Positional allophones: In Andalusia final /as/ becomes [A]
/e/ Spelled "e", "é" Positional allophones: In Andalusia final /es/ becomes [E]
/i/ Spelled "i", "í" Positional allophones: See /j/ above. In Andalusia final /is/ becomes [I].
/o/ Spelled "o", "ó" Positional allophones: In Andalusia final /os/ becomes [O]
/u/ Spelled "u", "ú", "ü" Positional allophones: See semivowel /w/ above. In Andalusia final /us/ becomes [U].

(* The sounds of the intervocalic spanish g (lago), b (nube) and d (nido) are not represented by the symbols G, B, D. Those sounds are not even fricatives, but rather aproximants. See [1] - Spanish only)


Writing system

Spanish is written using the Latin alphabet, with a few special letters: the vowels can be marked with an acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú), diaeresis u (ü), and n with tilde (ñ). Traditionally, the digraphs ch, ll and rr were considered separate letters, but this is no longer the case.

Written Spanish precedes exclamatory and interrogative clauses with inverted question and exclamation marks, examples: ¿Qué dices? (What do you mean?) ¡No es verdad! (That's not true!). It is one of the few languages whose written form does so.

Written Spanish also marks unequivocally stress though a series of othographic rules.

Spanish is nicknamed la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes, the author of the Quixote).

Examples of Spanish

  • Spanish: castellano /kaste"Lano/ (kass-ta-LYA-naw); español /espa"Jol/ (ess-pahn-YOHL)
  • hello: hola /"ola/ (OH-la)
  • goodbye: adiós [a"Djos] (ah-THYOHS)
  • please: por favor [por fa"Bor] (pour fah-VOAR)
  • thank you: gracias /"graTjas/ (GRAHSS-yahss)
  • sorry: perdón [per"Don]
  • that one: ése /"ese/ (EH-seh) (masculine); ésa /"esa/ (EH-sah) (feminine); eso /"eso/ (EH-saw) (object)
  • how much?: cuánto /"kwanto/ (KWAHN-taw)
  • English: inglés [iN"gles] (ing-GLESS)
  • yes: /"si/ (see)
  • no: no /"no/ (naw)
  • I don't understand: No comprendo [nokom"prendo]; No entiendo [noen"tjendo]
  • where's the bathroom?: ¿Dónde está el baño? ["dondes"tael"BaJo] (DON day esTAH el BA-nyaw)
  • generic toast: salud [sa"luD] (sah-LOOTHE)
  • Do you speak English?: ¿Habla usted inglés? ["aBlaws"teDiN"gles] (AH blah OOS ted ing-GLESS)

See also

External links

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